Some Christians tend to think of the apostle Paul as super-human because of his powerful writings and his marvelous ministry. Yet if Paul wasn’t made of the same flesh and blood as we are — if he wasn’t subject to the same temptations and trials — he would have nothing to say to the church. All his epistles would have been written in vain.
The truth is, Paul wrote many of his letters during the most difficult times of his life. He openly confessed to the church in Corinth that he experienced times of deep trouble and mental anguish: “Troubled on every side; without were fightings, within were fears” (2 Corinthians 7:5). When he wrote this, the great apostle was in Macedonia, where he’d gone feeling downcast, ineffective and totally rejected by the church.
How had Paul come to such a point? Let’s look at the background of his situation. Paul had just written his first epistle to the Corinthians, a stinging reproof meant to correct an immoral situation in the church. Although his letter contained a difficult message, Paul had written it through tears and anguish of heart.
The occasion for this letter was a shameful act of fornication that was being overlooked. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “You are puffed up with pride, refusing to mourn over this open sin in your midst. You haven’t judged this situation righteously. You should have put the perpetrator out of your fellowship, until you saw true repentance.” Paul then instructed them “to deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Corinthians 5:5).
It was a strong, hard message. And for a season afterward, Paul regretted sending it (see 2 Corinthians 7:8). Indeed, from that day on Paul grieved, worrying how the Corinthians might respond to it. Would they misunderstand his motive? Or would they know he’d written it in love, with a deep concern for where the church was headed? He later wrote to them, “I (spoke) this not to condemn you” (7:3).
I know how Paul felt. Over the years I’ve had to deliver what some could call hard messages by the Lord’s instruction through his Word. Afterward I fell on my face in anguish, praying, “God, did I cross a line? Your Word says we are not to reprove the righteous or to bless the wicked. Tell me, did I wound your righteous ones with this message?”
Paul also had learned that false prophets were creeping into the Corinthian church and causing others to “despise” his sufferings. In effect, these people were saying of him, “If God is truly with this man, then why is all this shameful reproach being heaped on him? Why is Paul being thrown into prison? And how could any man of God say he ‘despaired of life’? We don’t understand how a praying man could be attacked so often and brought so low. If Paul had real faith, he wouldn’t be experiencing these troubles.”
Such accusations are still flung today at godly servants who endure sufferings and reproach. How often have you heard one Christian say of another, “There must be something wrong in his life for him to go through so much suffering”? In Paul’s case, it was a matter of his critics wanting to chip away at his spiritual authority.
Yet Paul said he didn’t repent of sending the letter to the Corinthians. Instead, he instructed his spiritual son Titus to go to Corinth and explain the purpose behind his message: “Tell the people I love them and meant them no harm, but that this situation must be dealt with. Then meet me in Troas and tell me what kind of effect my letter had.”
After sending Titus on his mission, Paul set out for Troas, stopping along the way in Ephesus. God moved powerfully through Paul there, and his anointed preaching moved multitudes. Many who heard his message rushed home to fetch their occult books, then gathered in the city center to burn them in a huge bonfire.
This stirred up the silversmiths of Ephesus, who made most of their income from fashioning idols of the goddess Diana. Suddenly, they saw their living going up in smoke before their eyes. So they rose up in wrath against Paul, accusing him of religious bigotry and saying he wanted to destroy their worship. The accusations sparked a massive riot, and Paul narrowly escaped with his life. When he later wrote that he “despaired of life,” he was saying of this incident, “I thought I would be killed.”
We can’t be sure what else happened in Ephesus, because Paul doesn’t tell us. All we know is that his experience there caused him to be “pressed out of measure, above strength, insomuch that (I) despaired even of life” (2 Corinthians 1:8). Indeed, Paul spoke of being persecuted, perplexed, cast down in spirit. Now, as he headed to Troas, he longed to see his godly son in Christ Titus, who could lift his spirits. Paul could unburden his heart to Titus and learn the impact of his letter.
Yet when Paul arrived in Troas, Titus wasn’t there. He waited for his spiritual son to come, but still Titus didn’t show up. Meanwhile, doors of ministry opened up for Paul in Troas, but by this time the apostle’s heart had grown weary. Paul writes of the experience, “When I came to Troas to preach Christ’s gospel, and a door was opened unto me of the Lord, I had no rest in my spirit, because I found not Titus my brother: but taking my leave of them, I went from thence into Macedonia” (2:12–13).
Paul did something he had never done in his life, something that was contrary to everything he preached. In spite of ministering when doors were opened to him, Paul walked away. Instead, he wandered restlessly to Macedonia. What a picture of a wounded soldier of the Cross: the great apostle was beaten down, fainting and disabled, falling down in weakness of mind, body and spirit. Why? What had brought Paul to such a point? The apostle himself explains it: “I had no rest in my spirit, because I found not Titus my brother.” He was alone, and he desperately needed comfort from someone.
I know something about what Paul was going through, from my own experiences and from others who have faced the same kinds of trials. Satan always comes to attack us when we’re weary and tired from battle. That’s when we’re most vulnerable to his lies, and I believe the enemy buffeted Paul with two vicious ones. First, I believe he told him, “Titus hasn’t come because he has rejected you.” Then came this lie: “Titus isn’t here because you are no longer effective, Paul. You badly wounded those believers in Corinth and drove them away. Your ministry is simply not bearing fruit.”
I hear the devil whispering, “God is no longer with you, Paul. You’ve been rejected by everyone in Asia. There’s not one person left who stands with you. Even your spiritual son Titus has been infested with doubts by your opponents in Corinth.
“Face it, Paul, you’ve lost your anointing. Consider Apollos, whose preaching draws huge crowds. Everyone boasts about how effective his ministry is, while you reach such small numbers. You’ve started riots where you’ve preached, and the revivals you lead end up being shut down, just like in Ephesus. You’re not loved, Paul, and you are no longer needed. It’s clear you’re being chastened by the Lord. You grieved the Holy Spirit somehow, and God has lifted his hand from you.”
If you have walked with the Lord in intimacy, you know very well what Paul was facing. Satan is the father of lies, and in fact right now he may be sending you the same lies he threw at Paul: “You’ve been rejected by everyone. You have no ministry, no place in God’s kingdom work. You’re just taking up space.” That is from the pit of hell.
David knew what it was like to be overwhelmed by demonic lies. In Psalm 140 he writes of being in a “time of war” both physical and spiritual. This godly man prayed to the Lord, “The wicked are continually gathering against me for war. They sharpen their tongues like a serpent and have purposed to overthrow my goings. They have laid a snare for me, looking to trap me” (Psalm 140:1–5, my paraphrase).
Yet, despite his situation, David exulted, “O God the Lord, the strength of my salvation, thou hast covered my head in the day of battle” (140:7). Here was David’s testimony, in essence: “God, you have covered my mind, protecting me from demonic lies. Hellish powers have sharpened their tongues against me. But you’ve covered my thoughts so that Satan’s lies won’t overthrow my comings and goings.”
How did the Holy Ghost bring comfort to Paul? The apostle himself tells us: “God, that comforteth those that are cast down, comforted us by the coming of Titus” (2 Corinthians 7:6). Titus arrived in Macedonia with a refreshing spirit, and suddenly Paul’s heart was lifted. As the two men fellowshipped, joy flooded through Paul’s body, mind and spirit, and the apostle wrote, “I am filled with comfort, I am exceeding joyful in all (my) tribulation” (7:4). Paul was declaring, “I still face problems, but the Lord has given me what I need for the battle. He has refreshed me through Titus.”
Throughout my years in ministry, I’ve seen men and women of God come to the end of their endurance, cast down low and utterly confused. I’ve anguished over these dear brothers and sisters in their pain, asking the Lord, “Father, how will these servants of yours ever get out of such a pit of suffering? Where is the power that will bring them out? What can I say or do to help them?”
I believe the answer is found right here, in Paul’s testimony. Here was a man so deeply weary that he was no longer himself. Paul was at the darkest time of his ministry, as cast down as he’d ever been. Yet within a few short hours, he was completely out of that dark pit and reveling in joy and gladness. Once again, the beloved apostle felt loved and needed.
How did this all happen? First, let’s look at what happened in Corinth. When Titus arrived there to meet with the church leaders, he received his own glorious refreshing. An awakening was taking place in the church because they had heeded Paul’s instruction, and now God was blessing them mightily.
If only the Lord could have pulled back the curtain at that point, and shown Paul what was really happening. If only he could have witnessed the revival taking place because of his message. He would have seen Satan’s lies exposed and been reminded that God’s thoughts toward him were good thoughts, that it was all a part of his plan.
Now Titus arrived in Macedonia with the encouraging news: “Paul, the brethren in Corinth send you their love! They’ve removed the sin that was in their midst and dealt with the false prophets. They no longer despise your sufferings but instead rejoice in your testimony.”
This refreshing word, brought by a dear brother in the Lord, immediately lifted Paul out of his pit: “God that comforteth those that are cast down, comforted us [me], by the coming of Titus” (2 Corinthians 7:6). Do you see the example here? God uses people to refresh people. He didn’t send an angel to refresh Paul. The comfort this man received came through the refreshing of Titus’ spirit, who in turn refreshed Paul’s.
In Acts 27, Paul was on a ship headed for Rome when the vessel came to a stop at Sidon. Paul asked the centurion in charge for permission to visit some friends in the city, and “Julius … gave him liberty to go unto his friends to refresh himself” (Acts 27:3). Here is yet another instance of God using believers to refresh other believers.
We see this also in 2 Timothy, where Paul writes of a certain believer: “The Lord give mercy unto the house of Onesiphorus; for he oft refreshed me, and was not ashamed of my chain: but, when he was in Rome, he sought me out very diligently, and found me…. And in how many things he ministered unto me” (2 Timothy 1:16–18).
Onesiphorus was one of Paul’s spiritual sons also, and he loved Paul so deeply and unconditionally that he sought him out in his sufferings. Once, when Paul was jailed, Onesiphorus went through the city looking for him until he found him. His motivation was simply, “My brother is hurting. He has suffered the terrors of shipwreck, and now he’s being buffeted by Satan. I have to encourage him.”
The ministry of refreshing clearly includes seeking out those who are hurting. We hear a lot of talk about power in the church these days: power to heal the sick, power to win the lost, power to overcome sin. But I say there is great, healing power that flows out of a refreshed and renewed person. Depression, mental anguish or a troubled spirit can cause all kinds of physical sickness, but a spirit that’s refreshed and encouraged — one that’s made to feel accepted, loved and needed — is the healing balm needed most.
We find this ministry of refreshing in the Old Testament as well. When David was being hunted down by King Saul, he was exhausted and hurting, forced to run day and night. During that time, he felt rejected by God’s leaders and God’s people. Then, at a crucial moment, David’s friend Jonathan came to him: “Jonathan Saul’s son arose, and went to David … and strengthened his hand in God. And he said unto him, Fear not: for the hand of Saul my father shall not find thee; and thou shalt be king over Israel, and I shall be next unto thee” (1 Samuel 23:16–17).
This word of refreshing could not have been timelier for David. He had just endured a horrendous rejection after performing a selfless act of kindness. David and his men had risked their lives to save the village of Keilah, and for a while they found refuge there. Yet later, when Saul was on the move, David prayed, “Lord, will these people turn me over to Saul?” God answered him, “Yes, they will reject you. Leave the town now.”
The Psalms reveal just how low David’s condition was at that time. His soul was cast down, and he cried out continually, “God, where are you?” Consider also Jonathan’s painful trial over his evil, possessed father. Yet this godly friend “strengthened David’s hand in the Lord,” telling him, “The Lord is with you, David, and you’re still loved in Israel. You may not feel like it now, but you’re going to be king. Your work has just begun.”
That was all David needed to hear — “God is still with you” — and immediately his spirit was refreshed to go on. We see this example time after time in Scripture: God sends not an angel or a vision, but a fellow believer to refresh his beloved ones.
It is possible in the midst of our tribulations to spin out into a faithless, empty void, losing all hope and giving up. If this happens, you’ll end up bitter and hardhearted, unless you face your situation with truth. In fact, we’ll never come out of our times of confusion and feelings of rejection unless we understand why God allows these troubles in our lives. I’m convinced that for many readers, this is God’s word of healing for you.
When Paul sat down to write his second letter to the Corinthians, he saw before him a multitude who faced the same kinds of sufferings he did. He told them, “I want you to know, these afflictions I’m enduring have everything to do with you and your own times of tribulation.”
“Whether we be afflicted, it is for your consolation and salvation, which is effectual in the enduring of the same sufferings which we also suffer: or whether we be comforted, it is for your consolation and salvation” (2 Corinthians 1:6). Paul was telling them, “God is using my trials to teach me the ways of comfort. So, when you face your own afflictions, you’ll know that my words to you have power, because I’ve been through it too.”
It was a marvelous revelation from the Holy Spirit. Paul realized, “Here’s why God has allowed all this buffeting. The Holy Spirit is going to quiet my soul and heal me through this, so I can go out to console and refresh others in their troubles. He comforts us in our tribulations, that we may be able to comfort and refresh those who are also enduring troubles, with the comfort by which we ourselves have been comforted.”
Today, there is an avalanche of books, tapes and videos on “how to cope.” This message is sorely needed, and many materials do some good when they’re taught by sincere, righteous ministers. But I believe Paul is trying to tell us, “The only words that bring true refreshing and lasting healing come out of what is learned in our many afflictions and tribulations.”
I received a letter not long ago from a former nun who today is an ordained minister. This woman is fifty-nine years old, and after suffering a stroke recently, she fell into a deep depression. Looking back over her life, she decided to plan her funeral and wrote the following obituary for herself:
“No one’s wife. No one’s mother. Estranged from her family upon salvation. Accomplished nothing of importance with her life. Lived in poverty. A real loser has died.” My heart broke when I read this, as I pondered the sad thought of going to my Lord with nothing. But a pastor gave this woman a copy of my message, “I Have Labored in Vain,” and she wrote to me, “Brother David, your words encouraged and refreshed me.”
Make no mistake: God uses people to refresh other people. He so loves this kind of ministry that he moved the prophet Malachi to speak of it as a most-needed work in the last days. Malachi described how, in his day, God’s people built each other up through one-on-one edification: “They that feared the Lord spoke often one to another” (Malachi 3:16).
When did this happen, exactly? Malachi’s word came during a time of rampant ungodliness, when the “devourer” had destroyed much fruit in the land. God’s people had grown weary and started to doubt that walking with the Lord was worth it. They thought, “We’re told it pays to serve the Lord, obey his Word and carry his burdens. But as we look around at the proud and the compromisers, they’re the ones who seem happy. They’re pursuing prosperity, living carelessly, enjoying life to the fullest.”
The Holy Spirit began to move in Israel, and soon the fear of the Lord came upon a God-hungry people. Suddenly everyone in Israel, young and old, became one-on-one missionaries. By the Spirit’s prompting, people opened up to one another, edifying each other and building up and comforting those around them.
I’m convinced Malachi’s word about this ministry is a mirror image of the present day. He has given us a picture of an outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the last days, as God’s people stop gossiping and complaining and instead minister refreshing. It’s happening by phone, by letter, by e-mail, and face to face. And God is so pleased with this ministry, we’re told he writes everything down. Every kind word spoken, every call made, every letter written, every effort to comfort the downcast is recorded in a “book of remembrance.” And the Bible says each of us whose deeds are written down will be precious to him: “They shall be mine, saith the Lord of hosts, in that day when I make up my jewels” (Malachi 3:17).
May God help those who complain that they don’t have a calling or don’t have doors opened to ministry. I say to every such person: Get your eyes off your situation and stop fretting about being harassed. Stop trying to please God by planning some great, sacrificial work. Instead, get up, seek out and refresh a hurting brother or sister.
Be a Titus to someone who’s downcast in spirit. Pray to have the spirit of an Onesiphorus, who sought out the hurting to bring them healing. Think of it: you’ve been given all the power of heaven to refresh a hurting believer, someone who needs the consolation that God has given uniquely to you. Yes, there are people who need you, and the Lord intends your past consolations to bring refreshing to them. Call that someone today and say, “Brother, sister, I want to pray for and encourage you. I’ve got a good word for you.” ■